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Product manager vs. program manager: What’s the difference?

Product manager vs. program manager: What’s the difference?

What’s the difference between a product manager and program manager? While these two job titles may sound similar, product managers and program managers have very different roles, responsibilities, and ways of approaching their work.

Let’s examine each role in more detail to get a better sense of these differences.

Product managers: A quick overview 

What exactly does a product manager do? This is a complex role with many tasks, responsibilities, and stakeholders. To put it simply, product managers are responsible for discovering what users need, prioritizing what to build next, and guiding the team to reach their desired outcomes.

Some of the product manager’s main activities include:

The product manager is a holistic, high-level role with responsibilities that encompass the entire product lifecycle—from discovery with customers to product delivery. The product manager drives the product strategy by understanding customer needs, the product, and the overall market. 

A good product manager is expected to be a customer spokesperson, product visionary, team champion, and strategic leader.

Now that we’ve got a better idea of what product managers do, let’s take a look at program managers in contrast.

Program managers: A quick overview

Program managers take a lateral view across the organization. While product managers develop deep expertise on a particular product, program managers need to identify and coordinate interdependencies among several products, projects, and strategic initiatives.

For example, when launching a new product or feature, a product manager will be the one who works with product, engineering, and design teams from the initial stages of discovery and ideation all the way through building the product or feature and launching it. Their work is focused on the specific product/feature and the teams involved in bringing it to life.

A program manager, on the other hand, will be looking at all the ways this new product or feature will impact the organization. The marketing and sales teams will need collateral and support so they can sell the product or feature. Customer success teams will need training so they are equipped to support customer adoption. Different teams might need to hire new people or invest in tools to achieve certain milestones by the desired timeline. This will involve working with HR or Finance to secure budget and resources.  

It’s the program manager’s job to identify all the ways different departments depend on each other and work with relevant stakeholders to keep the product launch (or any other type of program) on track.

Some of the program manager’s main activities include:

  • Identifying risks—how might a product, project, or program be delayed or disrupted? And what can we do in these cases to keep it on track?
  • Building out program schedules and keeping everyone accountable for sticking to them
  • Requesting and distributing resources (this can include people and budget)
  • Justifying major expenditures or adjustments
  • Reporting on the program’s progress to key stakeholders

Product managers vs. program managers: A side-by-side comparison

Now that we’ve looked at each role separately, let’s do a little side-by-side comparison to highlight the key differences.

Product Manager Program Manager
Overall focus Highly strategic. In-depth and big picture view of the product. Highly tactical. Lateral view of all the teams involved in ensuring a project, program, or product gets rolled out successfully.
Areas of responsibility Product vision

Customer discovery

Cross-team alignment (product, engineering, and design)

Feature prioritization

Identifying and mitigating risks

Acquiring and allocating resources

Cross-team alignment (across the entire organization)

Timeline communication and accountability

Owns Product roadmap

MVPs

Timeline

Budget

Success metrics NPS (product)

Conversions (product)

Revenue (business)

Churn (business

Completing programs on time and on budget

ROI

 

Product manager vs. program manager: Do you need both?

With this newfound understanding of the differences between product managers and program managers, you might be wondering whether you need both. The answer is, it depends. 

At smaller companies, product managers can easily work across teams and keep stakeholders informed of what the product team is doing, so in effect they’re taking on the main tasks of a program manager. 

The larger and more complex a company becomes, though, the harder it will be for product managers to do these tasks. Not only will the number of stakeholders grow, but so will the complexity of other teams’ work. In these cases, product managers will likely find it challenging to understand how decisions are made and projects are prioritized on other teams. And even something that seems simple like scheduling meetings with stakeholders might become increasingly time-consuming and tedious. 

The goal at most organizations is to maximize the amount of time product managers spend on high-value activities like discovery and prioritization. When it gets to the point where a product manager’s ability to do these high-value tasks is impeded because they’re spending too much time trying to communicate with stakeholders and get other teams to stick to the timeline, this is a very good sign it’s time to hire a program manager!

 

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